Thursday, December 05, 2013

No surprises!

 No surprises in the Autumn statement after all the leaks. No surprise that Labour criticised the whole thing. Sadly, no surprise that energy policy, which is crucial to the long-term prosperity of the country, is being treated as a short-term political football. Obligations on energy companies have been relaxed so they are now able to save consumers about a pound a week on bills. Once again an increase in fuel duty has been scrapped. Subsidies for onshore wind power have been reduced and at the same time the duty on gas produced from fracking is cut in half.

In the short term, reductions in energy bills and the fuel duty freeze will help with the cost of living, (though Is £1 per week really important when the average energy bill is now some £1200 per year?) It’s suggested that the reduced support for onshore windfarms is designed to head off a threat from UKip, which is totally opposed to them. All these are good political points in advance or the 2015 election. Not sure why George Osborne is so desperately keen to promote fracking, when it’s clearly so unpopular!

Altogether, these measures are symptomatic of a chaotic energy policy. There are three issues that have to be taken into account when planning energy supplies - cost, security and pollution. 

Let’s look first at fracking. Driving high-pressure water down into shale deposits to drive out oil and gas looks like a good idea. It’s been very successful in the US. The Americans have reduced their carbon footprint by using shale gas, which is a much cleaner fuel than coal. They calculate that they are sitting on reserves of shale oil which are greater than all the oil left in Saudi Arabia. Certainly ticks the security box - as it would for the UK. We’re talking about resources firmly within our borders and under our control.

The trouble with fracking is that it doesn’t tick the other two boxes. Gas is still a fossil fuel which produces co2 when burnt. Globally, we cannot afford to burn all our fossil fuels because if we did the co2 would cause runaway global warming and extreme weather events which would damage food production and make some parts of the world uninhabitable. (Of course George Osborne doesn’t believe in this. He’s with the 5% of scientists who believe it won’t happen. The other 95% are sure it will.) Fracking uses vast amounts of water, it causes minor earthquakes and it releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Then there’s the cost. Nobody knows what gas from fracking will cost. Looks as though George expects it to be very expensive. That’s the second time he’s cut the duty! The sad thing is that fracking is no silver bullet. Nobody even yet knows whether it will work outside the US. In the UK the geology is different, the population density is different and the planning laws are different.

Relaxing the obligations on the energy companies means that they can slow down the process of offering free insulation for cold homes. Well-insulated homes mean less energy and lower bills. There are some (a very, very few) high-spec council homes that cost no more than £20 a year to heat. That’s the dilemma of the privatised energy companies. The less we spend, the less profit they make. In the long term more insulation, more efficient heating and lower bills are good for the consumer and good for the balance of payments. (Don’t forget, we import 20% of our gas from the Middle East, much of our coal from Russia, even electricity from France!) So who will win this one? The consumer or the energy companies? Don’t hold your breath.

Has the government really got an energy policy? Some of us have been warning for years that the lights could go out in winter 2014 or 2015, as power stations are retired before new ones are built. The government has announced a new nuclear power station that won’t be ready for 10 years, they’re offering subsidies to fracking but they don’t know if that works - and it will probably also take 10 years to commission. Meanwhile they are preserving demand by cutting back on insulation  and scrapping the fuel duty rise, and limiting supply by cutting wind power subsidies. Is that a credible policy?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Business Reimagined

Last week E3 Bradford held a Summit.

The closing keynote, entitled Business Reimagined, was delivered by Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer of Microsoft. he’s written a book with the same title, available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

Dave started by telling us he would project forward how people will live work and play in the future. Or perhaps how they could, because while technology is a force for good, all too often the way we use it means that technology has become a prison. We are using it to do the things we used to do, only faster. After 60 years the office has moved from a phone and a mechanical typewriter (I don’t think the IBM Selectric on your slide was around in 1950, Dave), to a phone and a keyboard today. We work with standardised processes which are designed to be efficient but overlook the fact that they dehumanise the workforce and demotivate. Why do we still commute hundreds of miles from home to office each week only to sit in front of a keyboard and screen like the one we have at home? Only the one at home is now often better! Why don’t we have local work centres where we can go and hotdesk with people in the same situation but who work for other organisations? We could spend our money locally and bounce ideas off people who have a completely different perspective from our colleagues back at headquarters. (I had that idea 30 years ago, Dave. Do you think it will ever work?)

Dave explained how open plan offices kill creativity, how we misuse email, how we’re wedded to the QWERTY keyboard (and AZERTY, QWERTZU and many others across the world) designed specifically to be inefficient, how we all have to work harder to overcome these obstacles of our own making.

So what’s the answer? Social business. Flexible working. Light-touch management with long-term objectives and bonus or oblivion depending on your performance. Nice work if you can get it, and certainly a great approach for knowledge-based roles. For me, I think the utilities, production, construction, the health service and a fair number of other organisations will always need careful planning, skilled management and comprehensive procedures. (I don’t want a debate when that nuclear reactor goes critical.)

I agree with Dave when he says that we should liberalise communication. Of course some things are commercially confidential, but as much communication as possible can speed decisions, enhance corporate knowhow and improve the work environment. (At the risk of being political, I believe that Edward Snowden’s revelations were good for democracy.) We already communicate more quickly as consumers. Have you tried tweeting a complaint about your energy supplier/phone company/car/insurance company/ISP? Quicker and cheaper than hanging on to an 0845 number!

Dave’s message is that we must reimagine our world. We must see the big picture and recognise that “We’ve always done it like this” is not a good reason to keep doing it. We must look for outcomes not processes and we’ll always need leaders, not managers. We need to educate so people have skills, not just a knowledge of tools. We need people with critical thinking. We need to teach people to use technology to the full and to use it responsibly. It’s people who do bad things on line, it’s not the fault of the computer.

Dave’s presentation was delivered with anecdotes, examples and humour. I’ve not repeated them here because I don’t want to spoil it if you get the opportunity to hear him live (or on YouTube, I believe.)

Many thanks, Dave. I’m off to read the book now. I hope it’s as good!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Let's beat up the energy companies!

Yes, let's beat up the energy companies! Let's ignore that we're not just buying energy, but paying for the infrastructure that generates it and delivers it to our homes. Let's ignore the infrastructure, just like successive governments have done, to the extent that it now needs urgent investment and could fail in a harsh winter. Let's ignore that profits pay for this investment (and also pay a lot of people's pensions.) Let's beat up the energy companies and ignore the fact that in unequal Britain those in fuel poverty are also struggling with the cost of food, petrol and the rest. Who shall we beat up next? The supermarkets? The oil companies? Surely not the government!

Published in The i Newspaper 30/10/2013

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Computing for the Future of the Planet.

On 25th June 2103 I attended this presentation by Andy Hopper, President of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) and director of the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory, as part of the York Festival of Ideas. This is what I learnt.

It’s about the crossover between computing and sustainability. It’s not the answer to sustainability but it is a contribution to the answer to sustainability. 

Green Computing 
Green computing is about establishing an optimal digital infrastructure. For example, 3-4% of the world’s total energy is used by computers and communications. How much of this energy consumption can be offset? Prof Hopper described how technology can be used to move the processing load around the world to where surplus energy is available. Renewable energy is notorious for intermittence. Sometimes power is generated but there is no use for it so it is wasted. If data centres are located close to sources of renewable energy these surpluses can be used. Global networks permit processing to be carried out wherever this “free” energy is available. Google, which alone has some 1.5 million servers, is already using software to carry this out automatically.

Data centres can be designed for economy and efficiency and computer architecture can be built so that instead of having two extreme states – standby and full power – there can be a proportionate increase or decrease in computer usage as processing demand fluctuates. Increasing hardware performance and more interconnected devices will improve energy efficiency. Workload trends will also affect energy consumption - increases in batch processing and increasing amounts of data produced and consumed. Recognising that not all processing is needed on demand but that some can be scheduled to smooth peaks and troughs will also improve efficiency.

All these measures could lead to future energy savings of 15-20%.

Computing for Green

Having established the most green and efficient computing infrastructure, how do we use this to green the rest of society? Professor Hopper talked of a “Google of Everything” - a universal data resource available to all and with information about everyone and everything. For example, Google Street View could be adapted to give an infra-red view and to immediately reveal where houses are losing heat. This is a first step to saving energy on heating. He told us about Ubisense, a system for tracking objects in three dimensions with an accuracy of  15cm. This is used by BMW not only to track assembly equipment, but also to programme it according to its next task. As the unit approaches a nut it is programmed with the number of turns it should give and the required torque. As it moves to the next nut the system automatically re-programmes it. The result is increased efficiency - more accuracy, less manual intervention, time saved. Accurate tracking already saves money and improves efficiency for Airbus, in public transport depots, dairy farms, distribution centres and convalescent homes.

The big question is how far we go to track ourselves. It is possible to track an individual’s energy footprint, carbon footprint or water footprint. It is also theoretically possible to track an individual’s location to a very high degree of accuracy. With data as detailed as this we can take action to control the use of energy, carbon or water. This would include managing services within buildings according to their occupation and use, monitored in real time. We can give people feedback and tailored incentives. Other sorts of wearable sensors could monitor an individual’s state of health, so if they felt unwell they could go to the doctor and provide a read-out to help him make a diagnosis. (Or maybe the sensor detects a life-threatening condition and automatically calls the ambulance!) A major obstacle to this is the trust issue. Will people believe that their privacy is respected and trust their governments with their data? Just at the moment, with the GCHQ and PRISM issues, evidence of cover-ups and secrecy in the NHS and the police and a legal system way behind technological reality, many people will refuse to participate.

Another example of the benefits of technology is the electronic shoe. A shoe with strain gauges built in to analyse the gait of the runner accelerating, cruising and slowing down. Valuable information for trainers, but an adaptation could monitor the runner’s weight and send an alarm if it fell out side the normal range. Raspberry Pi, the ultra-cheap computer, gives today’s youth an introduction to computing and makes them aware of the threats to privacy from surveillance and hackers. At the same time, this generation is totally relaxed about posting almost anything on Facebook - the bad and the good for all to see for all time. Smartphones, particularly with location services enabled, potentially compromise privacy. However, it is now possible to use fake data when requested by apps, to get the service without giving away private details. But how long before this “mocking” can be detected?

Will we demand privacy and restrict data which could otherwise improve sustainability - consumption patterns, energy use etc? Trends indicate that we will allow our privacy to be gradually eroded. After all, caller ID was once thought to be the work of the devil and now everyone takes it for granted.

Assured Computing

Computer systems are now crucial to society. They are like a pacemaker for the planet: we cannot afford them to stop. We can use more detailed knowledge of ourselves and the way we use the world to take measures to tackle global warming, traffic management and energy demand. However, the more data we manage, the more challenges arise. What parameters of error can we accept? Is there a clear audit trail to authenticate the data? How can we assure privacy and security? 

For the future, Professor Hopper looked forward to robust, self-correcting energy management and mapping systems on a global scale. He’d like to see a method of absolutely removing an image from the internet. At present, nothing can be revoked. Those party pictures you posted on Facebook are there for ever. He’d like to see an application which analyses the correctness of news. He called it a virtual BBC “More or Less”. [More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 series which picks out statistics in the news and shows how they have been twisted, misquoted or wilfully misunderstood.]

Wealth in Cyberspace

This last section of the presentation was quite difficult to understand. Our speaker mentioned an “Ebay for all”. Does he mean that the internet will provide everything we ever need. That we’ll shop on line, meet up on line and have all our life experiences on line? Will we no longer need to travel? He suggested that the developing world could go straight to this state of data abundance, without going through the stages that the developed world passed through.
Not altogether sure what he meant here. Has he read “The Machine Stops” by E M Forster, I wonder? (Perhaps Ross Noble has read it, although it doesn’t mention moles.)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sustainable Future for Tourism: How Businesses are Changing

This is an article by Sam Marquit. "I am an entrepreneurial independent contractor and home renovation/remodeling expert in New York. I’ve made it a point to share with my readers a day in the life of sustainable building. Forecasting the possible application and implementation of new green building materials and technologies is just one small part of my effort to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint."

When I started working as an independent contractor, my priority wasn't on green building. Now as a commercial contractor, I've really started to develop a knack for sustainable building and green materials. In today's world, there is so much that can be done for the planet, and yet many businesses are only worried about LEED certification. While this is a necessary part of becoming more eco-friendly, there are a variety of organizations and businesses in the tourism industry that are doing something more.

In the United States, consumers, investors and business owners have a lot of economic power. If you think about the places you choose to visit and the businesses you frequently support, then you can see how businesses have a certain appeal because of what they offer. works to help businesses that are really moving forward with eco-friendly practices to gain notice while also pointing out those businesses that engage in corporate irresponsibility. In addition, the organization helps to build sustainable communities all over the world.

Being one of the biggest hotel chains, you'd expect that the Marriott hotels have a number of eco-friendly policies. While they do a few things and use recyclable materials, it was their recent purchase of 24 million recyclable and biodegradable key cards that gained my notice. Most key cards are made from plastic. However, The Marriott now only uses corn by-product key cards, effectively saving about 66 tons of plastic waste from going into a landfill.

There are some hotels out there that have taken a serious look at their policies and made changes to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. The Las Vegas Palazzo Hotel and Resort is one of them. This hotel has worked tirelessly to change its policies and facilities, which earned them the award of "TheMost Eco-Friendly Hotel in America." The Palazzo has a solar heat system, waste reuse program and water recycling process in order to save on resources and become more sustainable.

It's so inspiring to see so many businesses making changes and really promoting this culture of conservation. This is especially evident with the new green Las Vegas hotels continuing to be built. It will be essential to continue this trend in order to make a change for the future of our planet.
Find out more at

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Energy Bill - who pays?

The Energy Bill makes its way through Parliament with an important vote later today. Why important? Because there is going to be a revolt. 

Just announced - the government defeated the amendment which means there will be NO decarbonisation target - unless the Lords overrules.

The government does not want to include a carbon target for electricity generation. It wants to defer a decision until after the next election. Why is this a problem - and why the revolt? The carbon target will define how clean and efficient our electricity generation must be. In turn that will define how much of the supply must come from renewables, from nuclear and it will determine how urgently (or not) the industry should be cleaning up coal and gas generation with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). In energy policy the government is gaining a reputation for dithering. The Feed-In tariff, revised down well before the promised deadline, is a key example. The market for solar panels collapsed overnight and more than a few installers went out of business. 

Carbon targets are as important as guaranteed prices for energy generators. If they are planning plants which will take years to build and will operate for decades they need to be sure that tariffs and taxes - and carbon targets - can be relied upon. Otherwise they will reject the risks and go and look for business elsewhere.

We are on the threshold of a new phase of generating plant. The chancellor is committed to a new dash for gas, powered by gas extracted by fracking from deep beneath Lancashire. Announcements made yesterday claim there could be 7 years’ supply down there. Could be. Nothing is proven yet. Well, we can still get gas from Norway, the Middle East and in time from Russia. Leaving aside the energy security arguments, (would you prefer to rely on gas and coal from thousands of miles away, or to use wind, solar and tides freely available at home?), if the generators go ahead anyway and build new plant, what happens in 2016 when the targets are finally set?

Either we bring in standards which will make a sensible contribution to reducing the UK’s emissions, (and maybe bankrupt generators who can’t meet the new standards), or we decide that all the controls we need fit nicely with exactly how these new power stations operate. 

We have a declared target to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. 

But that’s still a very long way off, and it won’t be this government’s concern!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Greenhouse Gas Reporting - The IEMA/ICAEW Webinar 22nd May 2013

This article is also available as a podcast at

For major companies, greenhouse gas reporting is due from 1st October. Today’s webinar, hosted by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, laid out the key issues.

First we had a rundown of the statutory requirements from Carla Hopkins from DEFRA. The companies involved are all those incorporated in the United Kingdom and listed either on the London Stock Exchange, a European stock exchange or the New York Stock Exchange. There will be about 1,000 of these, all required to report on their annual emissions of CO2 equivalent. This covers all six Kyoto gases and all emissions throughout the organisation’s global operations. In broad terms these are the companies’ Scope One and Scope Two emissions, although the legislation does not define them in these terms. The company must also quote one or more intensity ratios and explain the methodology used to obtain the results. It is up to companies to decide which emissions they are responsible for and they can use data from other schemes such as the carbon reduction commitment or the EU ETS, although the scope of those schemes is different from the scope of greenhouse gas reporting. They may choose to use different intensity ratios for different parts of the business. From Year 2 onwards reports must show the previous years’ results for comparison purposes. Reports will be audited and the auditors must confirm that the information provided is consistent with the financial statements.

Reporting requirements are effective from 1st October 2013 and relate to all financial years ending on or after 30th September 2013. This means that many companies will already be well through their first reporting year.

DEFRA last issued guidance on greenhouse gas reporting in 2009 and an updated version of the guidance will be available very shortly - see GOV.UK.

The scheme will be reviewed in 2015 when it will be decided whether all large companies, not just quoted companies, should be brought into the scheme from 2016.

A new web-based conversion factor tool will be published on the DEFRA website shortly.

Paul Holland from KPMG spoke about data quality. He said there was a significant risk from imperfect data, that data was important and therefore it was a key task to lower the risk of poor quality data. By comparison with accountancy, sustainability reporting is in its infancy. There is a lack of controls and processes and there is no key indicator of accuracy such as a balancing balance sheet. There is no double entry, no accepted or universal methodology and so far, limited guidance. The old cliché tells us that what gets measured gets managed, but if what is measured is inaccurate then what gets managed is defective as well. Emissions generally arrive from the use of costly resources so managing emissions is a way of managing costs. There is also increasing external interest in the environmental management of organisations as we saw later in Bekir Andrews’ submission from Balfour Beatty. Mandatory reporting now provides a whole new incentive.

Coming from an accountancy firm, it’s perhaps not surprisingly that Paul strongly recommended that finance departments should work with environment departments and vice versa. There is in any case no doubt that accountants are skilled in detailed and forensic analysis of data. Their skills are complementary to those of sustainability and environmental professionals. The objectives of the exercise should be a detailed analysis of the background, identification of opportunities for improvement, emphasis on the greatest risk areas, and a critical assessment of methodologies.

There are many areas of uncertainty, particularly related to large organisations. Given that it’s mainly large organisations that will be involved this is obviously of concern. Examples were how the emissions of joint ventures should be shared out and how intensity metrics should be designed – relating to turnover, to output or what? Whatever is decided, participants should be able to stand firmly behind their methodologies. Then there’s the question of transport. Do you treat owned vehicles in the same way as leased vehicles? What about subcontracted transport? And do you account for the journey where the vehicle returns empty?

Final words of caution. Carbon reporting can take very much longer than financial reporting and time is short. There will be people involved in reporting who’ve never been involved in such activities before and will need training. Paul echoed Carla’s warning that many companies are already well into their first reporting period.

Bekir Andrews from Balfour Beatty explained to us the challenges from greenhouse gas reporting facing a very large organisation. With an £11 billion turnover and 50% of activities overseas the amount of data involved is enormous. There is a wide range of sources of data and it is extremely difficult to obtain data in some jurisdictions. One of the main challenges which he identified was the issue of fugitive emissions. These do not generally come from mainstream production processes and are very difficult to track and analyse. For example, sulphur hexafluoride, one of the six Kyoto gases, is used as an insulator in switchgear. 1 kg of this gas has the same effect as 28 tons of CO2 and will persist in the atmosphere for 3,200 years. Almost as bad are the other Kyoto gases which may leak from air conditioning and refrigeration units.

Bekir spoke about managing data and the issue of baselines. As mentioned earlier, from Year 2 onwards the data has to be compared with the previous years. In a large group, corporate acquisitions and disposals can alter this baseline radically. Again he brought up the issue of training, because those who collect and verify the data must have a clear methodology and guidance documents. Quite apart from the benefit of compliance there are a number of other positive aspects to the whole process. Reducing emissions will in most cases reduce costs. It will reinforce relationships with suppliers and clients and it will enhance the corporate reputation. Nevertheless there are challenges. Fugitive gases have already been mentioned. The treatment of energy received from the landlord is different within the Greenhouse Gas scheme from the treatment within the Carbon Reduction Commitment. Electricity may be sub-metered, but heat provided from a central boiler in a communal office block will be much more problematic. There are different international benchmarks, there will be difficulties in making estimates in some areas and inevitably there will be costs involved in validation and data collection. He emphasised too, that time is short.

In summary, there’s lots to do and a surprisingly short time left for most participants. Of course, it only involves 1,000 companies and yours may not be one of them. However, by 2016 your company too may be drawn into the net. At present, unlike CRC or ETS, there are no carbon credits to buy. But have you ever known George Osborne miss an opportunity for more tax?

More details at or contact me at 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Keeping the Lights On

Back in October I predicted major power cuts on 18th January 2013. In the event, some 5,000 people in Wales lost their electricity as the result of bad weather, but nothing catastrophic happened. This weekend's weather caused power cuts for 10,000 people in Scotland and up to 200,000 in Northern Ireland. 

There are two issues here. One is the ability of the network to stand up to bad weather. The other is whether the system can cope with increased demand. 

Running out of Gas?
Saturday's papers were full of government denials that we're going to run out of gas. Apparently we have some of the smallest reserves of any country in Europe, and they are down to 10% of capacity. That's not a problem as long as gas flows into the system at least as fast as it's used up. The key issue is where we get the gas from. Yes, we still get about half of what we use from the North Sea. About 20% comes from Norway and about the same from the Middle East in ships. All our gas, whether it comes from the North Sea or elsewhere, is governed by world prices. Middle East gas - mainly from Qatar - is also governed by Middle East politics. The US is rapidly increasing its domestic production by exploiting shale gas and by 2030 could no longer need the Middle East. Who will attempt to keep the peace there then? Norway is a friendly, stable nation but its government already recognises that its gas may last little more than another 10 years. The biggest reserves in Europe are in Russia, at the end of a very long pipeline from the UK. In recent years Russia has been in dispute with Ukraine and others about gas prices and has simply cut the gas off - affecting innocent countries down the pipeline as well.

Powering the Future
In view of all this it's a bit of a worry that George Osborne has announced a policy of building a fleet of gas power stations. They are cheap and quick to build, they can react rapidly to fluctuating demand, but although they are much cleaner than coal they still burn fossil fuels and still create CO2 emissions. And where is the gas going to come from, George? Why not shale gas like they've discovered in the US? George announced special deals for "fracking" in the budget, and fracking installations which extract the gas from shale are likely to be fast-tracked for planning. (Locals will not be involved in the planning decision.) Why not? I'll tell you why not.
  1. Although there has been test drilling, shale gas reserves have not been proved in the UK.
  2. There are suspicions that the test drilling caused an earth tremor near Blackpool. 
  3. There are fears - yet to be proved or disproved - that the fracking process can contaminate the water table. Certainly it generates a lot of dirty water which has to be dealt with somehow.
  4. Shale gas, like any natural gas, is a fossil fuel and releases CO2 when burnt.

In the short term the question is whether existing systems and existing supplies will keep the lights on in the face of this terrible weather and increased demand. (Did anyone ever predict the consequences of rising emissions and resulting climate change? Wasn't there something about unseasonable weather? Did you read that Sir John Beddington, retiring chief government scientist, says that climate change is more serious than ever?) 

The Nuclear Option
Of course planning permission was awarded last week for a new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point, but that will take at least 10 years to build. All but one of our existing nuclear plants are scheduled to close by 2020. 

And if we run out?
What will happen if the nation does run out of gas? Probably, the lights will go out. That's because it's very much easier to turn off a major gas user like a power station than thousands of individual users. Let's hope it doesn't happen, because the consequences would be horrific. Last time we had nationwide power cuts - which, incidentally, brought down the government- was in the 1970s. At that time we had no ATMs, no computers, no barcode scanners, no electronic tills, no mobile phones. Which of those would you be happy to go without? And remember, your gas central heating has electronic controls and an electric pump. You won't just be sitting in the dark, you'll be sitting in the cold as well!

Cheer up, it's Spring!  

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

GACSO - a forum for Sustainability Professionals

At last week’s meeting hosted by DWF in Manchester Alan Knight, sustainability director at  Business in the Community (BITC) and a founder member of GACSO, the global association for corporate sustainability officers, explained more about the organisation. This is not a body where suppliers come to pitch to sustainable professionals. It exists to allow professionals to meet, compare notes and share best practice. 

The vision of GACSO is that sustainability should be at the heart of corporate strategy. 

Sustainability professionals will guide organisations on the megatrends which shape every business. There is potential synergy between GACSO and organisations such as the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) but they are essentially different. GACSO takes an overview broader than just environment. Its mission is to address the challenge of 9 billion people in the world in 2050. How can these 9 billion people have a good quality of life on our planet when we are already exploiting it at a rate which will need three planets to sustain? Nine billion people will need more materials, more food, more energy, more water and create more waste. No one has faced such a challenge before and there are no guaranteed answers, just big questions. An important question is where the people will come from to take the role of sustainability officer. The business schools may meet the demand in due course but it is still not clear what skills and competencies these people will need. Universities are already seeking relationships with GACSO in order to develop the concept of the corporate sustainability professional.

Arguably sustainability officers, supported by a team, should operate at board level and have a full understanding of finance, governance, carbon management, health and safety and supply chain issues. At the moment, because the notion of sustainability is still ill-defined, the wrong people are often appointed as sustainability officers and are frequently appointed at the wrong level or in the wrong department. 

Corporate sustainability offices are pioneers. They will be reporting to somebody who has never done their job and they themselves will be leading people whose jobs they have never done either. Compare this with a finance or engineering professional who will start at the  detail level and work through a range of roles before becoming a director. 

GACSO is an organisation of professionals and membership therefore is individual not corporate. It plans to hold regional meetings throughout the country - a safe space for professionals to talk about their job. See for more information.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Enough is Enough

Last month I attended the launch of Enough is Enough by Dietz and O'Neill, founding members of CASSE, the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy. 

Everyone should read this book. The authors quote Kenneth Boulding, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist,” and go on to explain in detail why this is true. Of course this story has been told many times before, in An Inconvenient Truth and The Age of Stupid among many others. An Inconvenient Truth tucked its recommendations for action away among the closing credits while The Age of Stupid was a festival of hand-wringing over what went wrong. Where Enough is Enough scores is that after describing the present situation it constantly asks “What could we do differently?” and “Where do we go from here?” Most of the answers are very sensible, although I do take issue with their idea of lowering productivity to provide more jobs. Why not increase productivity and provide more leisure? But that’s a debate for another time.

The key issue, of course, is to get enough people to realise that we need fundamental change and to support that change. Maybe we’ll get to that tipping point, but the problem is that too many people have too much to lose if they step away from the present system.

The book is full of cartoons and many of them cheapen its image. They give the impression that the cause of all the world’s problems is cynical and corrupt capitalists. It isn’t nearly as simple as that. There are signs that some business leaders are beginning to get the message, and pitting one section of the community against another is not only no solution, it’s a waste of the very limited time we have to get things under control. 

There’s much to be done. Enough is Enough is a useful route map.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sustainable Real Estate

At a recent meeting of GACSO - the Global Association of Corporate Sustainability Officers - Lynn Cook, Real Estate Associate at DWF, explained how legislation is driving sustainability in the property sector. The key legislation is the Energy Act 2011. This comes into effect in 2018 and provides that any property with less than an E rating may not be let. 25% of offices are currently below this efficiency rating (and 45% are currently below D).

The legislation applies to existing leases, not just renewals or new leases. Landlords will find pressure from mortgage lenders and in turn will put pressure on rents in order to recover the costs of improvements. There may be some help from the Green Deal, launched in January. This is a scheme based on the “pay as you save” principle. Loans are advanced for the cost of approved energy-saving work and repayments are recovered via the electricity bill. The Golden Rule is that energy savings should be greater than or equal to the repayments. So far uptake of the scheme has been slow. The problem for the commercial sector is that the landlord’s and the tenant’s interests are not necessarily aligned. The landlord makes the improvements but the tenant is often the bill-payer.

The government is still supporting renewable energy. The feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar energy is still a good deal, even after the government’s backtracking on the rate of subsidy, which sent a number of solar installers to the wall. The Renewable Heat Incentive, covering biomass, heat pumps and solar thermal, has been much more carefully thought through and will now make these systems cost-effective in many more situations.

Now is the time for landlords to survey their current stock and determine what needs to be done to bring it up to E or above. Or maybe just to dispose of it. Introducing so-called “green leases” putting more of the obligation for energy efficiency on the tenant, is another way of reducing the landlord’s burden.

For the future, it is difficult to tell whether efficient buildings will have an enhanced capital value - or whether leaky buildings will plummet in value as 2018 approaches. Maybe there will be a mad refurbishment panic at the end of 2017. The government is not expected to move from the 2018 deadline. After the FIT disaster it is much more organised.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sustainability At Law

DWF, the business law firm, hosted a meeting on behalf of GACSO, the Global Association of Corporate Sustainability Officers in Manchester yesterday. Here’s what I learnt.

Ty Jones, Head of Value and Sustainability opened by explaining how sustainability affects a legal practice.

Sustainability is now part of the business plan and is far more than window dressing. It’s a platform for delivering outstanding results and a clear differentiator when every legal practice is trying to promote itself as a deliverer of excellence. The drive to sustainability is led by stakeholder expectations. No client wants to be associated with a supplier with a bad reputation, and vice versa. The question is whether the professional firm is a value limiter or a value creator. The value limiter concentrates on business as usual to the exclusion of all else. The value creator is a thought leader, a strategic thinker and will challenge clients. For credibility, there must come a point where the firm will refuse to do business with clients that are recklessly unsustainable. Even so, the firm will not hold clients to standards that it cannot meet itself. The firm as value creator will add value by challenging clients and thus will limit its clients to the best clients. Equally it will attract and retain the best professional partners to work in the firm.
Until two years ago DWF had no Environmental Management System (EMS). Now it has ISO 14001, as expected by its clients. Clients putting work out to tender are going far beyond asking whether there is an environmental policy. Now they ask for details of the EMS and want to know how it can add value to their own sustainability objectives. Some clients can have rigorous sustainability standards and yet demand less than sustainable service from their lawyers. An example is insisting on face-to-face meetings at remote locations, when the same result could be achieved with a conference call .
It’s important to influence the supply chain as far as a relatively small organisation such as DWF can. The firm has therefore established structured supply partnerships including benchmarks, quarterly reviews and regular discussions.
Employee engagement is important from the moment of induction into the firm. Many people don’t realise that sustainability goes far wider than environmental issues. They also don’t realise that actions with a sustainability consequence – use of materials, use of energy, disposal of waste – also have a financial consequence. Smart use of technology, not just using technology in an unplanned way, can make people’s working lives more sustainable. The recent acquisition of Cobbetts by DWF, involving the absorption of 500 people into existing premises, demonstrated exactly how this can work.

Sustainability is firmly embedded in the DWF business plan.

Later in the session Lynne Cook of DWF spoke about sustainability and real estate and Alan Knight of BITC explained the background and objectives of GACSO. More on this in a later blog.